Undercover

Matt Peak’s 308 looks stock. It’s not, and a 485-hp 3.9-liter V8 is only part of the story.

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June 9, 2017

There’s something going on when it comes to fictional cops and private investigators with cool cars. Frank Bullitt’s grumbling green Mustang fastback, Jim Rockford’s gold Firebird, Thomas Magnum and his Ferrari 308 GTS, Theo Kojak’s brown ’74 Buick Regal…. Well, thankfully that last one didn’t catch on.

Matt Peak was one of many FORZA readers who got caught up in all the on-screen excitement. “I grew up idolizing Magnum, P.I., and the 308 was my dream car,” says the Los Angeles-based technology consultant. “My 2010 purchase of my ’85 308 GTS QV was a dream come true…until I started driving it.”

Also like many of us, particularly latter-day enthusiasts, Peak was lured in by the 308’s sinewy Pininfarina lines only to be let down by the car’s adequate, but not scintillating, performance. In this case, his new Prancing Horse also suffered from countless quality ills.

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“I couldn’t go out on monthly drives with the Ferrari Club of America without something going wrong,” he recalls. “Oil leaks everywhere, the fuel pump went out, repeated overheating, and so forth. Even if the car was working okay, I’d face the normal headaches of 308 ownership—in particular, the costly timing-belt changes, haphazard electrical wiring, and lackluster acceleration, all of which took away from the experience.”

Peak also had trouble finding someone reliable to service the car. “A longtime Ferrari-owner friend recommended a shop with a ‘factory trained’ mechanic,” he says. “I took my car there for a couple of years before realizing the shoddy quality of work.”

As so often happens with cars that seem to have more problems than virtue, the owner was one day pushed over the edge and had to decide whether to simply dump the 308. “The final straw broke while, on a long drive with some fellow Ferrari owners, the head gasket blew, which would have required a costly rebuild,” says Peak. “I had been working with Nick’s Forza Ferrari on some minor upgrades and was impressed with the work and quality of the products, and knew they had a permanent solution for my reliability headaches. So instead of paying around $25,000 for a new stock engine with same design flaws, I opted for NFF’s solution of a hopped-up, race-quality engine build, along with a thorough re-engineering of much of the rest of the car.”

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WHAT PEAK WANTED, and got, was a ground-up pre-build analysis and assessment made by an engineer. “The project leader was NFF’s Scott McGehee, who is not simply a wrench but a former naval nuclear engineer,” explains Peak. “Thus, we were choosing the engine-build specs and components not like a young hot rodder might have back in the day, but instead looking at systems integration, materials science, and mapping via computer as we went, so we knew all of the engine’s parameters and performance before the build was finished and the engine was installed.”

All of this analysis revealed new air and fuel-flow requirements, which of course necessitated a substantive redesign of the fuel system, along with an all-new, higher-flowing exhaust system. Why all the heavy math for an engine rebuild? Because Peak had more in mind than simply addressing quality and engineering foibles. He wanted power—and lots of it.

The owner researched forced-induction power adders but quickly dispensed with those solutions, as the notion of turbos and superchargers kept visions of more and more blown head gaskets dancing in his head. Peak also wanted to maintain the Ferrari’s original naturally aspirated ethos and architecture, so he and McGehee elected to go the “no replacement for displacement” route.

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The wounded stock engine was stripped to the nubbins and built back up with race-ready preparation, componentry, assembly, and details. The stock crank hit the bin in favor of a 360 Modena crankshaft; its 79mm stroke combined with a bigger 89mm bore for 3.93 liters of displacement— about a full liter more capacity than stock. Compression was fixed at 11.0:1 in order to boost low-end torque and response, yet allow the engine to live happily on 91 octane pump gas. NFF also whipped up a custom pair of cams for each bank.

On the reliability front, the rebuilt engine wears all-metal head gaskets and timing belts pirated from a high-performance Japanese engine that can run many tens of thousands of miles between replacements. The timing gear “cog wheels” are bespoke, while the water pump was custom-built to optimize flow (the engine runs waterless coolant), and NFF fitted a new radiator engineered for more flow and better efficiency.

To handle the bigger motor’s more-demanding needs, the stock fuel system was ditched for a fully electronic, programmable setup. Naturally, the stock exhaust system, which at one point necks down to a single pipe to incorporate the catalytic converter, was no longer up to the task. It was replaced with custom stainless-steel headers and a bespoke exhaust. The latter, built in partnership with Capristo, is a true dual system that incorporates high-flow cats and vacuum-operated valves that open and close to modulate sound and flow. A fully computer-configurable coil-on-plug ignition system keeps everything firing in time and at peak performance.

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The result is impressive: 485 horsepower at 8,500 rpm and 335 lb-ft of torque at 6,500—numbers a stock 308 can only dream of. Of course, the rest of the car wouldn’t be able keep up with the new engine, so the owner turned NFF loose.

“[I told them] to build out everything to the highest standards,” explains Peak. “Interior, exterior, suspension, etc. No system left unturned, using only the best components money can buy.”

As you’d expect from such a mandate, there are dozens of detail improvements, some of which you can see, others of which are buried deep inside the car. For example, the clutch is a race-inspired dual-disc piece designed for minimal reciprocating mass and a quick, clean take-up.

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NFF upgraded the Ferrari’s brakes with new bits from Giro Disc, the largest that would fit inside the stock 16-inch wheels, which themselves were shod with Pirelli P7 rubber. (Peak was adamant about retaining the 308’s classic look, and larger wheels with ultra-low profile-tires didn’t fit the bill.) Custom coil-over shocks and anti-roll bars were built by NFF specially for this car. After they were installed, the suspension was set up on a corner-weighting jig, the ride height carefully adjusted for the perfect stance, and the alignment optimized for precise handling.

The Ferrari’s interior enjoyed its own stock-but-better reimagining. The seats were redone in a pattern and color similar to stock, with higher grade leather and black piping, while the door panels were reconfigured to eliminate the map pockets. The radio has likewise been vanquished, and the central HVAC vents were remounted in its location; Peak says the only music he needs comes from the engine bay. The drilled aluminum, leather-lined pedals are custom, of course.

The lightly tinted windows go up and down much faster than stock, thanks to an NFF-designed two-relay setup that works without overtaxing the electrical system. Speaking of electrics, much of the car’s factory “spaghetti loom” has been replaced with neatly wrapped, heavy-duty wires for more reliable operation and general robustness.

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The rear luggage area received just as much attention as the cockpit. “Like every other 308, my rear luggage area tonneau cover’s zipper was broken and its crappy stock material was falling apart,” says Peak. “So Nick’s mother-in-law made a new rear tonneau cover out of uber-soft Plonge glove leather and a durable YKK zipper.”

The fresh-looking paint job was actually done back in 2012, but the NFF crew added their own touches to the exterior, such as the custom grille, additional fog lights, and gloss black Euro-spec bumpers. The stock rear fascia didn’t fit with the new exhaust, so was eliminated. Its removal lets the fully polished exhaust peer out clearly from under the car.

AFTER HEARING PEAK RIP up and down the road for photographer Linke, I can’t wait to get behind the wheel. The cockpit is immediately familiar from the countless 308s and 328s I’ve driven over the years, as is the view of the road ahead. When we buckle in, Peak reminds me, “Just remember, this car has way more engine than tires or brakes.” Got it.

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The custom starter whirs, then the engine lights with a chesty bark. It’s immediately obvious there are many more cc’s, and a lot less exhaust restriction, than stock. A few prods of the loud pedal reveal the reduced reciprocating mass and resulting free-revving nature compared to the original engine.

An aftermarket “slick shift” gate smartly guides the shift lever, which makes the usual metallic clack-clack sounds. The clutch engages smoothly and, with a little throttle, the car pulls away cleanly. There’s serious low-end torque on hand, yet the longer stroke does nothing to inhibit the engine’s eagerness to leap through the rev range. Second gear arrives almost immediately, and third comes in a big hurry. This car is no longer 308 quick; it’s genuinely fast.

Just as important, the thoroughly upgraded old-school Ferrari feels alive with mechanical feedback. The solidly mounted engine buzzes my backside through the chassis and seat. The unassisted steering is organic and feelsome, and talks to me the whole time.

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Peak’s warnings notwithstanding, the comparatively modest rolling stock and brakes are enough as long as I don’t get too playful with the throttle. I don’t have the venue to really flog it, but on deserted public roads I learn the Ferrari’s horsepower rating is real, and how good and balanced this 308 chassis truly is. And then there’s that exhaust note: a wonderfully mechanical growl overlaid with an almost ethereal scream, loud and strong yet never over the top.

It’s an amazing, one-of-a-kind machine, and Peak fully credits NFF for the results. “I was blown away with the attention to detail and quality of work,” he says, and I don’t disagree. “In all honesty, I’ve never met people with higher ethical and workmanship standards than NFF.”

Peak regularly gets asked why he spent so much money on a 308 instead of, say, just buying a 458? He cites two primary reasons, the first being that he wanted a much more analog, organic car than the current, highly computerized models. As for the second, it’s obvious; as Peak puts it, “Magnum didn’t drive a 458!”

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Also from Issue 159

  • 360 Spider with stick-shift
  • One-off 330 GTC
  • Daytona restoration
  • 333 SP
  • F1: Ferrari wins!
  • FORZA Tifosi Challenge: F430 to 458
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